Bad idea: give a kid $10.00 and set them loose in a candy store.
Worse idea: give a bored adult a credit card and set them loose in a foreign grocery store.
After a week on the road, Erin, Paul, Lisa, and I were back in Dalanzadgad. It was civilization after the Gobi. We had a night to ourselves, and nothing to do with the eight hours until bedtime. Normally, this would be time for urban exploration, but Dalanzadgad was only a city in the loosest sense. It had streets and buildings and traffic lights, but not much else. We spent thirty minutes at the amusement park (largely closed), explored the mall (largely stocked with Chinese knock-offs), and wandered through the local park (largely full of various animal poops). With limited options, we decided to indulge our grumbling bellies. And since mutton khuushuur had lost its charm, we headed for the grocery.
There is nothing so infantilizing as exploring the foreign equivalent of a Stop ‘N Go. Sure, I looked like a European hobo. My beard was scruffy. My shirt was deliriously stained, and I smelled like camels playing in a monkey house. But after five seconds staring at the shelves, I was a kid clutching a sweaty Abraham Lincoln, trying to decide between Nerds or Jawbreakers.
First, I stared at a cartoony, farting sumo wrestler advertising bags of crisps. Was the farting a feature? A promise? A threat? And if I ate them, would I be devastating enemies with manly flatulence?
Nearby, antique illustrations of dead-eyed children covered bags of hard candy. They looked like they hadn’t been touched in years, and no wonder. If they weren’t haunted, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Why anyone would use hand painted images of WWII refugees to sell their sweets?
Another aisle sold bags of ultra processed pastries. They were the kind of snack cakes one might buy in bulk and keep in an office drawer. They also looked profoundly unwholesome, something meant to strengthen your relationship with your toilet.
So we picked one of each, because we were bored, hungry, and profoundly stupid. We were on the way to the checkout with our gastronomic madness when I spotted the pièce de résistance. It was Max Fun, a chocolate bar by Alpen Gold of Russia. The packaging had a circus theme. And was covered in cannons… and gummy bears… and nuts.
“Paul. We need to buy this!” I said.
He looked at the packaging. “Hell yes, we do.”
“Erin!” I called. “Check this out!”
“Oh, God, what now?” she sighed. Then she saw what I was holding. “No.”
“But it’s Max Fun!” I insisted.
Paul nodded, serious. “It’s the maximum possible amount.”
Lisa peered over Erin’s shoulder at the lurid bar. “Are those gummi bears?”
“Yeah,” I replied grinning.
“That’s going to taste horrifying,” Erin added.
“Yeah!” Paul and I echoed.
Lisa mouthed, “Boys,” and walked away, washing her hands of us.
“Look,” Erin said, “This is just ridiculous, and I have to draw the line somewhere.”
I held up a bag of farting sumo crisps.
She sighed. “I guess it is sticking with the theme. Okay, add it to the pile.”
We giddily made our purchases and retreated to the hotel. A deck of cards appeared from someone’s bag, we popped some sodas and started picking through the loot.
“Well, that does taste like farts,” Paul said, trying the sumo crisps.
“Truth in advertising,” Lisa replied.
The rest of us sampled the bag, for science. Then it went off to the side. This would become known as the Pile of Shame.
“Anyone want some ghost candies?” I asked.
“Will I be haunted by the creepy kids on the package?” Erin said.
“No,” I replied.
“Probably not,” Paul added. “There’s really only one way to know for sure.”
“Not helping,” Erin said. She slipped one into her mouth and made a face. “It tastes like the Depression.”
“Strike two,” I said. They were added to the pile.
The pastries were essentially chemical preservatives and sugar. “Best of the lot so far,” Lisa said, grabbing another.
“We’ll just see about that,” Paul replied as he broke open the Max Fun. We all leaned a little closer to watch.
It looked like a normal candy bar. Almost, anyway. The chocolate was studded with nuts and bits of… something. Something dark and glistening and unnatural. Undaunted, Paul broke off a square and popped it in his mouth.
“How is it?” Erin asked after a moment.
He shrugged. “It’s chocolate. I mean-” He stopped with a twitch. Then his eyes widened in horrified surprise.
“What?” Erin asked.
“It’s… fizzing.” Paul jerked back and shook his head.
Surprisingly, Lisa broke off the next piece and took a cautious bite. “Okay, the gummis are gross, but…” She made a startled face. “Oh my God, it IS fizzing!”
“It’s like my tongue is being assaulted,” Paul growled. “What the hell did I just put in my mouth?”
Erin and I followed suit, and quickly discovered the strange crackle and buzz. It was like trying to eat electricity.
“What-?” I started.
“Pop rocks,” Paul said. “This thing has pop rocks in the chocolate.”
“Holy crap, you’re right!” Lisa said. “That’s… that’s horrifying!” She took another bite.
“You’re still eating it,” Erin pointed out.
“So are you,” Paul said.
“Well…” I started. “It’s better than farting sumo crisps.”
There was a pause. Then Lisa said, “I feel like I should spend some time rethinking my life choices.”
“We all should, Lisa. We all should,” Paul replied.
PS: And you can get it in soda/popcorn/hazelnut and jelly bean/peanut flavors! Which we of course tried! FOR SCIENCE!
If you’re in the United States and are hard up for a new candy experience, you can buy Max Fun on eBay!